$1 for 3 months. Save 97%.
$1 for 3 months. Save 97%.

Michigan restaurants, hotels want permanent visa fix to hire foreign workers

Breana Noble
The Detroit News
A drop in federal visas has meant a severe shortage of foreign workers in Mackinaw City and Mackinac Island, and consequently higher prices for vacationers.

Yankee Rebel Tavern on Mackinac Island hasn't received seasonal visas for foreign workers for the past three years.

Because of that, Patti Ann Moskwa, who owns the tavern and Horn's Bar with her husband, says she doesn't have the workers she needs to fully staff: "We're debating on what our hours are going to be and on a limited menu. We need these people."

So when the Trump administration opened applications last week to allow 30,000 more foreign workers temporarily into the United States for seasonal work through the end of September, it was a welcome sign to many seasonal businesses in northern Michigan that rely on these workers to operate. But they still want to see a permanent solution.

"Every year, we don't know if the businesses are going to open," said Joe Lieghio, whose family and investors own eight restaurants and 28 hotels in Mackinaw City. "Any year you could be out of business. If we didn’t get them, we wouldn’t be able to make our payments."

The new rules benefit oyster-shucking companies, fisheries, loggers and seasonal hotels, including the president's own Mar-a-Lago club. All use the visas, known as H-2Bs, to hire migrants for temporary jobs they say Americans won't do.

Lance Green, from Montego Bay, Jamaica, and co-worker Tanashia Howell, from Ocho Rios, Jamaica greet guests at the Hamilton Inn Beachfront in Mackinaw City, August 25, 2017. (Dale G Young/The Detroit News) 2017.

Michigan had 2,261 people working on H-2Bs in 2016 of 3,016 requested, according to the most recent data available from the U.S. Labor Department's Foreign Labor Certification Office. Almost 1,000 of those were on Mackinac Island with an average wage of $9.75 per hour compared to an average hourly wage of $11.21 for the entire state. Wages must meet the higher of the minimum set by the federal Employment and Training Administration or Michigan's state minimum wage.

The number of seasonal visas has been capped at 33,000 for foreigners working April 1 to Sept. 30. The year's total cap is 66,000, which many businesses and lawmakers say is outdated, especially now that unemployment is at a 49-year low.

The new visas exceed that cap after Congress gave the Homeland Security Department discretionary authority in February to release an additional 69,000 visas. Around 140 members of Congress in March signed a letter urging Homeland Security Department Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen to make those available.

Only foreign workers who have had H-2B visas in the last three fiscal years are eligible for them. The government already has vetted these workers, and they are unlikely to stay past their visas, officials have said.

Several businesses said they would like the federal government to reinstate the returning worker exemption, which expired in 2017. That program allowed for the return of temporary workers who had previously been in the U.S. on H-2B visas in the prior three years without limit. They did not count against the 66,000-visa cap.

"There needs to be a more permanent solution," said Jennifer King, senior director of human resources at Mackinac Island's Grand Hotel. "Businesses don't use the (the H-2B worker program) because they need cheap labor. They have to because domestic workers are not available."

The hotel is well-staffed this year, King said, but it becomes more difficult every year. The Grand Hotel still is requesting 15 more visas in three categories for the newly opened round of visas. Many foreign workers have traveled to work in the hotel every summer for 15 years or more.

After extensive recruitment efforts in the United States, Puerto Rico and other U.S. territories, Mackinac Island's Mission Point hotel applied for more than 100 visas last week so it can hire workers from Jamaica to clean rooms and serve tables and wash dishes in the hotel's restaurant. If it doesn't get the workers it needs like it has in the past, Ware said, it may not be able to provide some of its amenities.

"Without H-2B workers, we are finding it extremely difficult to find staff to fill critical positions," Ware said, adding many of the Jamaicans workers the resort hires have been working there for years. "They are part of the Mission Point family when they are here. Mackinac Island is a repeat destination; many of the families that come each year know our team by name."

Lieghio got lucky. This year, his hotels and restaurants were approved for 142 visas of the original 66,000. He did not get laundry workers, but 30 H-2B visa transfers from other parts of the country, extensions and a couple of American workers are helping handle that.

"We'd love to hire Americans, but there's not enough of them," Lieghio said, adding the costs for foreign workers' visas, transportation and other expenses cost the business an extra $2,000 per person. "(Most Americans) don't want to work for a few months out of the year and then get laid off. We always have a need, even in the depths of the recession. Now because the economy is so hot, it's almost impossible to find people. Almost everybody who walks through the door we hire."

But the uncertainty of obtaining the labor needed has caused businesses to have a difficult time obtaining the financing they need, Lieghio said. He has funded expansions at his own businesses with cash.

"There's a trickle-down effect," he said. "When these questions over if you operate arise, it affects the construction industry. There's not going to be demand for that. I cannot think of any business that is not indirectly or directly affected, including the local government. If there's no industry, there's no tourism."

And the guest workers are good for business in Michigan, Yankee Rebel Tavern's Moskwa said, detailing how many send barrels of clothing, electronics and other goods on ships home with them. They also pay taxes and into Social Security, which they cannot collect. The tavern is requesting nine H-2B visas.

"This is not immigration," she said. "There is a designated time of when they can come and when they must leave, and it's up to the employer to make sure that they're out of the country."

But even if the tavern gets approval for the workers, the lengthy process still would hold them up for another month, Moskwa said. "Pray for us that we make it through it."